The Western Sydney Wanderers defeated the reigning champions away from home to record a historic victory.
Rado Vidosic made no changes from the side that drew 1-1 with Wellington Phoenix last week, meaning Jack Hingert again filled in at right-back in Ivan Franjic’s enforced absence.
With Dino Kresinger sidelined, Popovic gave a surprise start to Joe Gibbs (to the contrary of rumours suggesting Tahj Minniecon would play upfront). Youssouf Hersi was on the left flank.
The Wanderers essentially played with two different approaches – Brisbane failed to keep possession when they pressed high up the pitch, and failed to create chances when they sat deep.
Wanderers press high and drop deep
The Wanderers started the game as the better side: they pressed high up the pitch, forced turnovers, and Brisbane often resorted to long balls towards the flanks. A brief spell around the 25th minute of the first half highlighted this strategy perfectly – Gibbs shut down the centre back in possession, Mark Bridge and Hersi put their opposing fullbacks under immediate pressure, and Shinji Ono blocked passes towards Erik Paartalu. Normally, Brisbane are very fluid and one of the two central midfielders will normally drop in to receive the ball, but Mitch Nicholls and Massimo Murdocca played unusually advanced, close to Besart Berisha. Brisbane looked like a broken team when the Wanderers used this aggressive strategy, but it wasn’t the dominant system.
Rather, Popovic instructed his side to alternate between pressing and dropping deep. When they adopted the latter approach, they had a clear emphasis on structure and shape, with two banks of four preventing passes being played through the midfield. This was an approach similar to how they played against the Mariners and Adelaide, and the ease of transition between two broadly different styles was highly impressive, and is a big testament to Popovic’s coaching. He deserves much of the credit for the victory.
That being said, Brisbane was, by their standards, extremely poor. They failed to hold the ball for long periods of time, and the normally characteristic pressure from the front wasn’t as synchronised. They’re a remarkably fluid side and this remains one of the cornerstones to their success, but tonight was a clear demonstration of how rotation can come at the expense of defensive shape.
As noted in the preview, Berisha’s movement has been far more dynamic this season, and here it was a key feature: he was constantly drifting both wide and deep and once, was even found in a left back position. Although the Albanian’s work ethic is admirable, too often a midfielder was forced to cover him in an advanced position (mainly Nicholls), leaving space for Mooy to drift into and transition defence into attack.
Thomas Broich was also similarly fluid tonight, regularly moving in from his left wing position to central playmaking zones. Murdocca does a manful job shuttling out to that flank to provide width, but regardless Brisbane’s lack of a clear defensive shape was exposed.
Central to this was the Japanese marquee. Ono didn’t play a starring role, but his movement in the playmaking role behind the main striker was excellent tonight – he constantly moved goal side of Paartalu then darted in front of him to receive the ball, and the normally solid defensive midfielder was left stranded in the zone in front of the defence.
The by-product of this clever movement was that with Paartalu being dragged out of position, there was more space for Gibbs to play in, particularly in between the centre backs. The strikers’ movement was far more varied than Kresinger’s, as the Croatian is more of a target man. Contrastingly, Gibbs was willing to work the channels and drift wide to link up with the wide players. In general, the Wanderers’ attack felt far more natural tonight, with Hersi in particular having an excellent game cutting inside on his left foot, but also showing a willingness to dribble on the outside of Shane Stefanutto.
Australia Scout’s main criticism of the Wanderers attacking play has been the lack of support for the lone striker, and that remains a problem, with Mooy and Ono still too keen to receive passes to feet rather than attack into the space beyond the central striker.
The overall feel of the second half was far different to the first: the Wanderers were happy to sit back and absorb possession in their well-rehearsed straight lines of defence and play on the counter-attack.
Brisbane’s best chance was to exploit the space behind Mooy – the no.10, by his attacking nature, is more energetic in in closing down than his more naturally defensive Mateo Poljak, creating a pocket of space down the right hand side of the Wanderers midfield, just in front of Michael Beauchamp.
Theoretically, this would have been perfect for Broich, but the German had a poor game riddled with frequent turnovers and sloppy passes. Vidosic moved him permanently into a central zone with his first change – introducing Henrique for Murdocca – but Popovic reacted by removing Shinji Ono, moving Mooy into the advanced role, and instructing Jason Triforo to sit deeper alongside Poljak.
The other performance that was most disappointing from a Brisbane point of view was winger Ben Halloran. The pacy youngster was key in the 5-0 thrashing of the Victory playing as a direct outlet high up down the right hand side, but Brisbane struggled to bring him into the game and stretch the width of the pitch on that flank. This can be linked to Franjic’s absence: the right-back is a superb attacker and constantly overlaps down the flank, but Hingert, although he gets forward, is less conservative, and rarely moved beyond Halloran. This was crucial, as it meant Adam D’Apuzzo could safely move up and close down Halloran quickly.
It can sometimes be considered poor form to put results down to intangible things like determination and desire, but it was clear from kick-off that the Wanderers were far more committed tonight and simply wanted it more. They were quicker to the second balls, anticipated loose passes, were more alert to danger and more willing to mix it up in the final third, as demonstrated by the short corner which lead to Bridge’s goal, following an earlier unsuccessful cross into the penalty area. It was interesting to note the goal came from a cross, the main feature to the Wanderers attacking play this season, as noted by Kate Cohen.
The home side were off the pace and deserved losers, and Stefanutto didn’t try to hide the fact post-match. Vidosic’s changes were disappointing: after Henrique, his only move was to introduce Luke Brattan for Paartalu late on. His side was simply exposed by their focus on fluidity rather than structure, and while greater creative freedom has been a focus of his tenure so far, it can’t come at the expense of defensive solidity.
Popovic will be pleased with the win, and especially pleased with his side’s ability to change between different strategies. They look like they might still struggle to score goals, but with a flexible approach, they’ll be competitive.